DES MOINES, Iowa — Penn State basketball opens its first NCAA tournament in 12 years tonight against Texas A&M at 9:55 p.m. in the Wells Fargo Arena.
The seventh-seeded Aggies opened as 2.5-point favorites, and the line hasn’t budged from that spot. The total has ticked up one point, rising from 133.5 to 134.5.
Here are a few keys for Penn State basketball to get its first NCAA Tournament win since 2001.
KEEP A&M OFF THE FOUL LINE
Penn State has to play clean defense. Usually, that’s something the team does quite well, ranking 14th in opposing free throw attempts. But Penn State’s facing the best team in the nation at getting to the line. One in every three A&M possessions results in a free throw, and the Aggies sink 75% of their foul shots.
Texas A&M will try to get itself into the bonus early, and Penn State can’t let that happen. Penn State has to make sure it isn’t rewarding the A&M’s aggression with cheap fouls. A foul on a shot or rebound attempt is going to happen, but Penn State can’t commit fouls 50 feet from its basket.
Given how much A&M will press the issue, Penn State must make sure every foul necessary.
ONE SHOT PER TRIP
Penn State’s faced a lot of good offensive rebounding teams over the past week. Texas A&M’s another version of that, but it’s closer to Illinois than to Purdue. Henry Coleman doesn’t have the height of Coleman Hawkins, but he’s stronger, making this more of a test of muscle than size. A&M will also send Dexter Dennis and Tyrece Radford after the ball, so Myles Dread’s rebounding abilities will come into play.
Dread doesn’t have a prototypical rebounder’s size, but he has the muscle to battle Coleman and the speed to match A&M’s guards. He’ll have to keep himself on the court and winning the battles inside to limit the A&M’s offensive rebounding.
Texas A&M excels at second-chance opportunities, and Penn State can’t afford to give those up. A&M isn’t a great shooting team on its own, but give it multiple chances, and you’re playing with fire.
ATTACK THE INTERIOR
Texas A&M is a strong defensive team, but the Aggies don’t defend the interior well. Because of that, Penn State should look for early layups early.
Penn State usually goes to the perimeter first, but that might be tough against A&M. A&M’s guards defend the perimeter and mid-range shots well, but their lack of size inside is a weakness.
Penn State might be undersized with its best lineup, but it has some players who can establish themselves down low. Kebba Njie played well in the Big Ten tournament down low, and Jalen Pickett loves to take whatever space he can get inside. Texas A&M coach Buzz Williams sounded like he wasn’t going to put any special attention on Pickett, which could open things up early. If there’s space for Pickett, he needs to take it and open things up for everyone else.